The goldfields of Central Victoria were once the richest in the world. In just one decade, from 1851 to 1861, the population of Victoria swelled from 97,000 to almost 540,000. During the same period, the diggings yielded almost 2.6 million ounces of gold each year.
It’s only 120km from Ballarat to Bendigo, the two main goldfields towns, if you take the Midland Highway, but take the back way through historic towns full of grand architecture, historic houses, galleries and antique stores to get a real sense of what life in the giddy golden boom days was like.
From Ballarat, head north to Clunes, a sleepy little place that was once the fifth-largest town in the colony; it has remained pretty much unchanged for the past century. Most visitors to the area miss Clunes, which is a shame as it is one of the most authentic 19th-century settlements in the country – a glimpse of real gold-rush heritage without the glitz of tourism. The bakery is a good place for coffee and a light lunch.
Continue north through Maryborough, once rather unkindly described by Mark Twain as “a railway station with a town attached”. The 1890 station is now home to the Antique Emporium, 372m2 of old stuff just crying out for a new home. Take a wander down the main street to admire the grand architecture of the town’s civic buildings.
Make your next stop Maldon. Like Clunes, it’s a town that time seems to have forgotten, and miner’s cottages stand cheek by jowl with restored mansions. The shopfronts along the crooked main street look like they have come straight from a movie set.
Getting there // The starting point, Ballarat, is 115km north-west of Melbourne; the end point, Bendigo, is 154km north-west of Melbourne.